Thursday, March 29, 2007

Are the Brownfields of Memphis Fertile?

Sterick Building -- Pediment to the FutureAre they especially fertile for new development?

Or put another way, is the existence of old buildings toxic to new development?

I would never say they were toxic but they could be a drag if Memphis were all built up -- no empty space left. But Memphis has plenty of empty space left. Plenty. So many empty lots that already exist throughout downtown -- lots emptied long ago by demolition.

We bulldozed everything around Beale Street 40 years ago, but it's only been the last 5 years that something besides grass and surface parking has replaced the lost buildings. We bulldozed everything in the block surrounding the Morgan Keegan Building over 20 years ago, and it still has empty space.

And that's on top of the many surface parking lots all over the Pinch, through the main and eastern section of downtown and around the FedEx Forum -- all paved on the graves of once standing structures.

If demolition attracted new development, downtown Memphis would have the skyline of Hong Kong.

Beware of Memphis' second greatest and grossest development anti-pattern: speculative demolition.

If the developers we're trying to attract are such bottom-feeders that they can't:
  1. imagine the re-use of an existing structure;
  2. envision the space without it being empty first;
  3. pay for demolition themselves.
then we better hope that all we've torn down was a convenience store, because we're not likely to get anything better as a replacement.

The answer is "no". Fill the holes first before creating new ones.

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Tuesday, March 27, 2007

Good News, Bad Note about the Tennessee Brewery

Today's Memphis Daily News gave a post-mortem of the most recent attempt to redevelop the Tennessee Brewery, (cheerily titled "As Latest Development Plans Collapse, Some Say Brewery Ultimately Faces Demolition") :
What's more, the episode [of the most attempt at development] further underscores an important truth about the brewery, something that likely is regarded as a sad note among historic preservationists.

Various sources have suggested the property's owner might not hold out indefinitely for a redevelopment plan and that, barring any practical alternative for its reuse, some form of demolition could be in the cards for the brewery. That, for example, is the tentative opinion of Rasberry [James Raspberry, the real estate broker for the Brewery] and at least one land planner who's had some involvement with the latest brewery project.

"Everybody wants to see it stay," said Brenda Solomito, a local land planner who was helping the recent trio of developers.
However, I was left wondering: if density of the 1-acre development was the major stumbling block with the present building, how is demolishing it going to solve the density issue? And if the demolition doesn't magically repeal the zoning codes that mandate density and height limits, how does demolition ultimately benefit the owner? You don't get a rebate on your mortgage if you tear down your house. You just piss off your neighbors.

Now the good news, also in the article:
Meanwhile, it must say something about the irresistible attraction of the landmark structure that at the same time one development team called it quits, Rasberry was already in negotiations about a letter of intent from another development group.

He declined to offer specifics about the new team that's contacted him with a proposal, citing its request of confidentiality until a formal contract is executed.

"But I am sitting here typing a response to their letter of intent," he said on March 15.
June West, executive director of Memphis Heritage, also mentioned this hopeful new development at tonight's annual meeting of the preservation organization.

Let me say that I fervently hope that all who own, invest in, live in, work for, look at, write about, dream of and preserve the inarguably wonderful Tennessee Brewery meet with the greatest prosperity and a life far in excess of actuarial probability. I do not wish any failure here except a malfunctioning wrecking ball.

All our successes are possible.

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Monday, March 26, 2007

An Urban Designer for Memphis

During his interview with the Memphis Business Quarterly, Frank Ricks of Looney Ricks Kiss noted one of Memphis' shortcomings:
Memphis doesn't have an urban designer. Austin, Texas, has three on its city payroll. So somebody wakes up in Austin every day and says, "what do I have to do to make this street or this neighborhood better." Somebody's tending the garden and we're not.
An urban design team for the city of Memphis would be great. Frankly anybody in city government who considers the quality of the built environment would be great.

However I am a little skeptical of the idea for the same reason I am little skeptical of the idea of a Design Center -- because I believe much of the ugliness stems not from artistic or technical but political shortcomings. Developers run amok through our cityscape and our leaders can't say no to the crap they build, nor demand -- as a matter of economic life and death -- better.

An urban designer will have to work for someone in city government. And if that someone -- the designer's boss -- doesn't want to say no to developers (very likely in the present system) then the urban designer could be either be ineffectual or an arse-kissing apologist for the status quo.

That's skepticism, not cynicism. It could happen, but doesn't have to happen.

Another possibility is the convergence of a city urban design team, a Design Center, the potential new Unified Development Code, an architecture school at the University of Memphis and activist architects could positively transform the political and civic mindset about our built environment.

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Thursday, March 22, 2007

Road Bridges and Ornamental Metal in Memphis

In my unscientific estimation, only litter has a more immediate negative visual effect on visitors and citizens than ugly, artless municipal architecture.

Memphis has destroyed many of the great architecturally-distinct road bridges that were built on our major thoroughfares over bayous and railroad yards, replacing them with 1960s-freeway-style utilitarian structures. These include bridges on East Parkway (over Southern), Airways (over the Kellogg's plant) and Jackson (at both Schering-Plough and National Cemetery) and McLemore (near Third Street). Usually the destruction was done as an "improvement" so we could shove more cars down them.

Did we really need to build new bridges as artlessly as the replacements have been? Most have no detail at all in the concrete work (reminiscent of the concrete barriers placed in front of government buildings during security alerts), and the railing and street lamps that could have been bought in 1972. In fact, here's a picture of the railings of the East Parkway bridge, built last year.

East Parkway (at Southern) bridge railingNow here's a picture of the railing of a bridge crossing I-240 in Midtown. It was probably built in the late 1960s or 1970s.

Linden (at I240) bridge railing40 years later we're still installing the same bland freeway-style railings. In this case, incongruously installing since Memphis did install Midtown-style street lamps, the only artful touch on any of the replacement bridges. The Sam Cooper bridge in Binghamton, finished in the last 5 years, doesn't even have the nice street lamps.

While the damage/destruction has been done to the original bridges, I don't believe the new bridges need to remain as ugly and artless as this. We can retrofit them with railings that are cast or molded for a Memphis specific design. It can be the same design everywhere -- we can use the same railings on all of our bridges and enjoy the economies of scale from this -- as long as it's a good distinctive design made specifically for Memphis.

We can't recast the concrete portion, but we can add ornamental metal to the existing concrete, breaking up a monotony that says "we're cheap and have no taste" with detail that shouts "we are the city of the great National Ornamental Metal Museum!"

And now a precedent.
downtown Memphis benchdowntown Memphis bench detailArchitecture advertises place.

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Wednesday, March 21, 2007

Is Memphis a Steel-Hulled Clipper Ship?

prepare to abandon ship, Mr. Aviotti!John Seely Brown spoke at the Leadership Memphis Community Breakfast of the conceptual rut -- the condition where you're so focused on the thing you've been doing that you refuse to see new patterns emerging all around you. The example he used to illustrate this was the bigger, sometimes better, but always wind-powered ships that the clipper ship industry built to ward off competition from those newfangled steamships. The race to stay competitive concluded with the Thomas W. Lawson (pictured) that not only was massive but had a steel hull. The industry mimicked an obvious but not core element of the competition, but couldn't let go of the wind power at the center of their universe.

A major conceptual rut -- nay, sinkhole -- for Memphis is command-and-control leadership. Our political, cultural and business leaders think that if they have to, they can just weld the new ideas onto Memphis' steeply hierarchic superstructure and still cruise with the competition. This has never worked for Memphis. I believe that we can trace many of Memphis' civic problems to nearly 200 years of political, cultural and business exclusion of 99% of Memphis citizens from decision-making and information-sharing.

Yet, we still do it.

By the way, the Thomas W. Lawson sank in 1907, killing everyone on board except the captain.

A lesson for Memphis.

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Tuesday, March 20, 2007

Good Paint, Bad Haberdasher

The sign above advertises a clothing store my great-grandfather owned and operated in a building on South Main. It went out of business before the start of World War I.

For 90 years that sign has taunted my family's entrepeneurial dreams.

Damn you, Farrell-Calhoun!

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Sunday, March 18, 2007

Questions about the "Zipper Zone"

Here are some questions I have about the zipper zone idea of Frank Ricks, profiled in Sunday's Commercial Appeal:
  • How were the outlines of the zipper zone determined? Most notably, why was the major part of Union Avenue (it appears from Watkins to Cooper) in Midtown left out? Why develop smart on Poplar but develop stupid 2 blocks away on Union (by perhaps knocking down more character-rich buildings)?
  • If "special design and zoning guidelines -- possibly similar to the Medical Center zoning overlay -- should be established to promote smarter, more sustainable growth", then why shouldn't they be applied city-wide? If this is indeed smarter growth (and I believe it is), it stands to reason we would have stupider growth everywhere else. I believe Memphis should be smart everywhere.
  • Why would the "new guidelines spook some developers"? Are there extra development costs associated with the special design and zoning guidelines proposed? And anyway, should we really care about a developer spooked by smarter growth? Considering our present pockmarked commercial landscape, with vacancies and random ugliness easy to find, it looks like someone more important -- the retail entrepeneur and customer -- is already spooked. Stupid growth doesn't seem to be working.
These are not rhetorical questions.

Well, maybe one or two rhetorical questions.

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Friday, March 16, 2007

How Much Do You Hate The Gates of Memphis? A Lot? A Fair Amount? Just a Little?

The Memphis Business Journal ran an online survey asking their readers how much they read blogs, then posted the results in "Business Pulse results: Memphians hardly care for blogs". The brief story began:
The majority of an online survey participants don't bother to read blogs.

Memphis Business Journal asked its online readers last week if they liked blogging. Of the 106 respondents, 41 percent said they don't waste their time reading blogs. 34 percent said they only read blogs on occasion.

However, 10 percent enjoy reading others' blogs and 6 percent have their own blogs and post often. A surprising 9 percent don't even know what a blog is.

2 things:
  1. were "do you bother to read blogs?" and "do you waste your time reading blogs?" survey questions? Maybe they were, but I can't find the actual survey.
  2. if a majority doesn't bother to read blogs, what's the percentage that does? 34 percent on occasion, plus 10 percent who enjoy reading other blogs, plus 6 percent who have their own blogs and post often equals ... 50%. 50% -- well that's definitely not a majority. But doesn't that also mean that the percentage that doesn't bother to read is also 50% -- definitely not a majority either! So the opening line "the majority of an online survey participants don't bother to read blogs" is incorrect. Readership is split down the middle. Avid readership is pretty low but they didn't say "bother to read regularly", they said "bother to read."
Why such a slant?

Perhaps a clear defeat of a pale young pajama-wearing whippersnapper upstart reads more entertaining than a split decision. I appreciate this explanation because I don't want my avid-to-occasional readers falling asleep in their Wheaties either.

But could it be something else?

This is absolutely not a story unique to Memphis, but the continuous, public, no-barriers-to-entry conversations and debates created and nurtured by this and this and this and this and this and all of these are with few precedents in Memphis' history.

50%, 10%, 1% -- all improvements over silence.

Update/Apology: I had copied and pasted the text above from the MBJ article. Little did I know I also copied their HTML, which included a reference to an ad (I must have that adblocked on my other computer). It's gone now.

As a consequence of this mistake, I've changed the title of the post. You win this time, Memphis Business Journal!

Update Again/Apology Again: Although I read the Memphis Business Journal, I didn't see the article until Mediaverse:Memphis posted about it. The Field Guide to Memphis also comments on the article.

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Thursday, March 15, 2007

Open Source Applied to Architecture: Open Architecture Network

I found this Wired article about the Open Architecture Network via Planetizen. From OAN's website:

The Open Architecture Network is an online, open source community dedicated to improving living conditions through innovative and sustainable design. Here designers of all persuasions can:

  • Share their ideas, designs and plans
  • View and review designs posted by others
  • Collaborate with each other, people in other professions and community leaders to address specific design challenges
  • Manage design projects from concept to implementation
  • Communicate easily amongst team members
  • Protect their intellectual property rights using the Creative Commons "some rights reserved" licensing system and be shielded from unwarranted liability
  • Build a more sustainable future
Memphis has much to gain and nothing to lose from the low-cost, share and share-alike, globally connected, hierarchy-flattening, mind expanding, rip-roaring and creative DIY ethos of the Open Source and Creative Commons movement. The OAN looks to be a wonderful example of it for the built environment.

It might not be long before public schools have no excuses to not build beautiful and cost-effective buildings.

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Wednesday, March 14, 2007

Can The Core Learn From The Edge?

and vice versa?

I saw John Seely Brown speak at the Leadership Memphis Community Breakfast last week. I waited 'til the last minute to register -- because of the $50 fee -- but I'm glad I went.

One of the ideas he presented to the Leaders and me was the importance of learning from the edge -- if you're going to be innovative. Now this sounds good to me, because I am at the edge.

But what about the Leaders? Do they buy Brown's idea? They don't have to -- no one made him king. But if they buy it, how do they make it happen? How do they learn from the edge? Can they learn from the edge?

Here's an idea and a test: Leadership Memphis should roll their Executive Development Program and their Grassroots Leadership Program together. The former appears composed of leaders from established businesses and organizations; the latter, DIY leaders from low- or no-funded organizations. But they're both about community leadership.

Yes, a very wonkish idea but it will prove 2 things:
  1. we can learn from our breakfast speakers.
  2. we want to learn to learn from both the edge and the core.

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Tuesday, March 13, 2007

A Christian Argument Against Parking Lots

Back in the ye goode olde days of the 1970s, Memphis liked to promote itself by saying that it had "more churches than fillin' stations!" It was definite proof of our holiness.

Alas, Memphis has given in to evil! For although we still have more churches than fillin' stations, we definitely have more surface parkin' lots than churches. If we are holy because we put church before gas, it follows that we are unholy because we prefer parkin' to churches. Technically this is called "putting before" and any Memphian can tell you that "putting before" is a clear violation of ... number 1 or number 2, depending on who's counting.

Parkin' on asphalt-covered dirt is Memphis' false idol and until we cast this idolatry from our midst, we will be afflicted with amany pestilences and corruptions and maladies.

Repent, O Memphis! and Remove those Parking Lots!

Build. Walk.
get thee between the yellow lines, Satan

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Monday, March 12, 2007

And While We're Saving Memphis, Save Fairview!

From a distance*, it's very hard to get a good visual sense of the magnificence of Fairview Junior High School.Fairview Junior High School, from corner of East Parkway and CentralBut up close it's a diamond.

Fairview name over front entranceUntil I took these pictures (which I recommend clicking on to see the detail even better), I've never been this close to the building.
ornamentation from front entranceIt may be early, but it's never too early to protect a beauty like this from bubbas on bulldozers (aka, developers and the politicians who love them).

detail from top of Fairview, Day
detail from top of Fairview, NightThat's because, as part of the Fairgrounds, Fairview is indeed threatened. The committee that came together to study Fairgrounds redevelopment (report here) recommended "scenario 5" where
Fairview Jr. High School could also be relocated but remain on-site along East Parkway, permitting the full development of the Central Avenue corridor frontage.
Fairview entranceOf course, that's the school Fairview, not the building. What happens to the building?
Whether the WPA-era art deco-style building is reused or not is dependant on the feasibility of rehabilitating the building for other purposes.
Fairview panelUh oh -- "feasibility". Bureaucratic excuses are being readied.

Fairview panelLater in the Looney Ricks Kiss authored report:
Fairview Jr. High School is under study by the school board, but the school is situated such that it could stay or go in any of the illustrated scenarios. If it is no longer a public school, then the reuse of the building makes sense if it is proven to be financially feasible.
Fairview panelBig uh-oh. "makes sense if it is proven to be financially feasible" is developer-speak for "if we feel like it."

Fairview panelThese excerpts, from the report issued a year ago, isn't what prompted this post though. It was this recent story on Fairgrounds redevelopment that offhandedly mentioned demolishing Fairview that has me worried.
The last [proposal] would clear the entire area leaving only the Children's Museum of Memphis standing.

By tearing down Fairview Elementary and moving it, the corner there would become prime real estate for retail and business.
Fairview urnThis pisses me off for 3 different reasons.
  1. they would demolish this awesome building.
  2. and destroy everything else but leave the juiced Children's Museum standing. Another example of power protecting power and money, and screwing everything else in Memphis.
  3. they talk about "prime real estate for retail and business" when another corner, one stinkin' block away, at Hollywood and Central, has been empty for almost a year. Classic Memphis development anti-pattern-- demolishing beauty when there's an unused brownfield next door.
Fairview grounds frieze On the positive side, Sunday's Commercial Appeal had a story about the City School's budget that mentioned opening a district-wide welcome center at Fairview. Of course, there is a distinction between Fairview the school and Fairview the building, but I have to believe that they're one and the same for the school system right now.

*Several things that work visually against Fairview from a distance.
  1. You can't see the awesome detail.
  2. You can see the institutional yellow paint.
  3. It has great trees but their random placement obscures the school and what seems to have been a very formal, and now completely forgotten, grounds layout.
  4. A parking lot in front obscures the school further.
  5. A utility shed and the generic City Schools marker in front completes the banal disguise.
New development could use the skeleton of the ample formal grounds as structure for new development. Done well, it could make Fairview pop out in a way it doesn't now. In turn Fairview's visual magnificence, whether still a school or not, would bless the new development.

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Saturday, March 10, 2007

Save Memphis: Denise Parkinson runs

Denise Parkinson, of Save Libertyland, is running for City Council District 5, now held by Carol Chumney.
Denise Parkinson for City Council

Please join me, my family and friends as I announce my candidacy for City Council. During our park preservation efforts over the past year and a half, I have met many people who see the potential for Memphis to grow in a positive direction. Spring is the season of Hope!

When: Sunday, March 18, at 4 p.m.

Where: Quetzal, located in Marshall Arts District at 664 Union Ave.

What: Denise Parkinson for City Council, campaign kick-off

Hosted by Stephanie Charbonnet, treasurer

Let's Put Memphis First!

for more info, call 276-0346

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Friday, March 09, 2007

The Only Thing We Have to Fear...

is ape-shit-crazy.

Probably me, but it feels like Memphis is near hysteria. Usually crime puts us in these zones of self-loathing and hopelessness, but this time it's political corruption -- MLGW, of course. It's made us ape-shit-crazy.

I think it's important to recognize these moments of a-s-c. Consequently I've re-organized the Gates of Memphis Research to work on an ape-shit-crazy Early Warning System. Before funding ran out, we had hoped to develop a completely automated system based on "chatter" -- blog posts, letters to the editor, talk show call-ins, water cooler conversations, gun battles between previously law-abiding citizens, etc.

Nope. All we have now is a draft set of classifications that span the spectrum of our polity's mental state, from genteel obliviousness to apocalyptic hysteria.
draft classifications for the GOMR ape-shit-crazy Early Warning System
Early indications are we are hovering at the lower cusp of "The Bottom of Your Shoe".

This rating/warning system varies from most because neither end of the spectrum is preferred. "That's not Magnolia!" is, in my twisted opinion, the healthiest place to be. In fact, it's usually skipped over as the city's mood swings.

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Wednesday, March 07, 2007

Anderton's East, The Pearl of Madison

Here are some shots of the really great terra-cotta commercial building formerly known as Anderton's East at 1901 Madison. It has something for everyone: beauty, character, location, parking, a great neon sign left behind by its longtime occupant.

I even like the Rat Pack Modern entrance that now looks as ancient as the ornament that it covered (but doesn't appear to have destroyed).

I've only been inside once, a long time ago, but I seem to remember a very retro lounge atmosphere -- perhaps matching the entrance. Could be wrong about that though.

It would be an awesome building for an entrepeneur who has, and wants more, style.

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Monday, March 05, 2007

Richard Florida and The Rise of the Robots

I haven't read the book either. Or more accurately, I haven't finished it. I would have, one day, if I hadn't lost it. That's right; the only library book I've ever lost was Richard Florida's "The Rise of the Creative Class".

I got about 1/3 of the way through before it disappeared. I think I'm not going to comment about it directly because of that. But I do want to make a general comment about the phenomenon incubating around it.

It doesn't bother me. As long as we don't use it to replace an old caste system with a hip new caste system -- California and Austin Uber Alles. As long as we don't create a system that rebrands maids as nannies and thinks it's progress.

So if I have a problem with the phenomenon it's the "class" part and not the "creative" part. Everyone should be creative, not just a class.

I wasn't far enough in to know if he's describing a class or prescribing/exalting that class. If the former, I don't have a problem at all. If the latter, it depends on how it's prescribed. There are very few people in this world that we can't learn something from so I'm ready to learn from any successes any group has had. But if it crosses over from "hey, great idea" to "why can't we be more like them? What's wrong with us? We suck!" or "STFU! The creative person's talking," then it's unhealthy.

car in Cooper Young, Memphis, summer 2006Why should everyone be creative? Because the robots are coming. We will automate more and more and more of our repetitious tasks. If you work in a job where the creative class tells you to get back to work, they've got the creative part covered, then it won't be long before the Terminator is making copies or loading planes where you used to stand.

Now is the time to be creative.

Later is the time to finish the book and see what I think.

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Next Steps: The Towerscape of Winchester Park

Last year 2 charrettes took place in Memphis:
  1. Broad Avenue Arts District, held in January-February 2006.
  2. Winchester Park, held in July 2006.
I've been searching about but I haven't found much about the implementation of these charrettes. There was the new development code for Broad Avenue, but that was by the land use consultant based in Austin.

Maybe there's a ton going on but I can't find it. The areas are great and worth the attention they've received, but it feels like the attention was too long ago. They need more, and much more current.

Like, what's the next step and when should it happen?

In this apparent info and possibly actuo vacuum, I think it's important for both areas to put something on the ground. Trees, medians, whatever -- a striking piece of their plans that will say, "this is the new world."

My personal favorite: the Towerscape of Winchester Park. It was a bullet point from the Winchester Park charrette's final presentation:
• Build a “Towerscape,” of campaniles (or bell towers),
to guide visitors to each institution and to give
memorable character to the district.
beautiful visualization of a transformed Medical Center, including the towers, from the Winchester Park charrette final presentationInstitutions like Methodist-LeBonheur and St. Jude and University of Tennessee will each build one of these campanile at their respective edges of Winchester Park.

Of course, putting in trees and building medians and street parking would seem easier and less ambitious. But the advantage of the campanile, at least for the independent organizations, is that they can do it. No waiting around for the City or other governmental bodies. Also, it would be a striking, possibly transformative, beginning. They would serve those institutions well whether anything else ever happened in Winchester Park. So St. Jude and Methodist and Southern College of Optometry -- start building!

An example tower from the Winchester Park charrette final presentation
Sorry for my impatience. I know the cliche well -- Rome wasn't built in a day. But we should be able to build a median in a year. And a campanile in two.

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